Catherine MacDiarmid - the brutally honest portrait artist

Cath MacDiarmid with her stark self portrait

Cath MacDiarmid with her stark self portrait - Credit: Archant

Meet a Kendal artist whose self-portrait horrified friends but delighted judges, writes Mike Glover

Kendal artist, Cath MacDiarmid

Kendal artist, Cath MacDiarmid - Credit: Archant

Most people who know artist Catherine MacDiarmid are horrified by her latest self-portrait. The dark, brooding face, slicked back greasy hair and angst-lined features bear no resemblance to the vivacious, happy woman they know. But not only does Catherine think the portrait is spot on, it has opened the door to TV stardom and a painting on the wall of a Hollywood actress.

‘I don’t paint to please people, especially myself,’ said the 42-year-old mother-of-three. ‘I wanted it to be revealing of the way I was feeling at the time. I put down a layer of blue under-paint on the canvas, dragged my hair back off my face, which I never normally do, used blue lighting and did it late at night.

‘I did it after putting the children to bed at 9pm and painted when I was absolutely knackered, until gone midnight. I knew this competition was coming up and was trying to re-launch myself as an artist. I hadn’t a lot of time – life just gets in the way – so I went for it.’

The competition was Sky Portrait Artist of the Year, which was screened on the Sky Arts channel last November. She was one of just 72 short-listed out of 1500 submitted self-portraits.

At her heat the artists were split into groups of four to paint someone famous. She got Scottish-born actress Ashley Jensen, star of Ricky Gervais’s Extras and the Hollywood TV hit Ugly Betty.

‘It was a very strange experience with our easels in a circle, and producers and runners and photographers constantly interrupting or asking you to do things, like mix a colour, again. I was completely out of my comfort zone, shaking and on the verge of tears. Luckily the presenters, Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner, were fantastic.’

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At the end of the programme, the sitters were asked which portrait they would like to keep, and Ashley Jensen chose Catherine’s.

‘It wasn’t too unflattering, but I didn’t capture her in my mind. She liked it and chose it, so it will be on her wall in her house, which is great. But I hated it. I could have done it better,’ insists Catherine.

Catherine is Kendal born and bred, and had begun oil-painting and portrait painting by the age of 13. She attained A levels in English and Art at Kirkbie Kendal School, before going to Carlisle College of Art and Design on a fine art foundation course. She then went to De Montfort University in Leicester, where she got a First in Art.

She returned to Kendal and started painting in her mum’s garage, while working as a cleaner at Westmorland General Hospital.

Lene Bragger, first arts co-ordinator at Brewery Arts, then helped Catherine and other like-minded artists form a new group, called Green Door Studios, back in 1994. That association persists.

Catherine has appeared in the BP National Portrait Gallery exhibition twice: once in 2001 with a painting of her then partner James Darrington, called Hombre, and then again in 2002 with James in a piece called ‘Mug-Shot’.

She still paints commissions, her latest being for renowned anthropologist Nigel Rapport and his family. She also teaches and is an art tutor mentor for Cumbria County Council but she earns her bread and butter doing face-painting at exhibitions, shows and shopping centres.

She has recently been elected to the exclusive Lakes Artists Society, which only allows 45 members at a time.

To coincide with the Sky appearance, Catherine’s portraits are on show at The Brew House, off Lowther Street in Kendal, until the end of this month. Viewers will find no flattering portraits. What other artist would paint her youngest, Zak, then two, suffering from measles, not just once but three times to make a triptych? ‘I am an honest artist, saying it as it is,’ says Catherine. And to prove it, her own self-portrait is on show.